WorldLink TV may be our Al-Jazeera

Dec 30, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Ray Hanania, part-time standup comic and full-time Arab-American journalist, recently came to the defense of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television news channel that sees the world very differently from, say, Fox News.
Most Americans know Al-Jazeera as Osama bin Laden’s favorite channel. But as Mr. Hanania points out, Al-Jazeera is a reputable news service that aggressively covers the Arab countries where it is seen. So aggressively, in fact, that many of those governments are now trying to keep their people from seeing Al-Jazeera.
“Arab governments hate what they can’t control,” explained Mr. Hanania. “They allow freedom of expression against Israel but arrest anyone who criticizes their own Arab government. America does the same thing, but in a more subtle way. Here, you are free to say what you want. But if the government and media don’t like your views, you can easily be excluded.”
Al-Jazeera doesn’t air in an English-language version (yet). But anyone with a DirecTV or EchoStar dish has access to WorldLink TV, a scrappy little news and documentary channel that proves the exception to Mr. Hanania’s rule. Based in San Francisco, WorldLink is so different from anything else on American TV you might wonder if it’s even transmitting from inside our borders.
In a sense, it’s not. “Mosaic,” WorldLink’s half-hour nightly report, takes newscasts from about a dozen countries in the Middle East, edits and presents them in English. It’s world news with the American blinders off.
“Our mission is to bring Americans alternative points of view they don’t get on mainstream television,” said Jack Willis, WorldLink’s chief programmer and a public-TV expatriate.
“Mosaic” is WorldLink’s only regular original program. With an annual budget of $3.5 million-less than one-tenth of C-SPAN’s modest outlay-Mr. Willis has little choice but to fill the rest of his schedule with acquisitions.
That would be a problem for any network but WorldLink. Since its launch three years ago it has struck agreements with broadcasters around the world to re-air their programs for free. Documentary makers happily allow WorldLink to beam their work into 19 million homes.
“American networks and PBS think people aren’t interested in this kind of programming,” said Mr. Willis. “We figure that the rest of the world is interested in these programs, why shouldn’t Americans see them?”
That brings us to “Spotlight,” WorldLink’s new documentary series. Last month, “Spotlight” presented “The Hidden Wars of Desert Storm,” a truly stunning film that questions the motives of the United States in Iraq and alleges that our use of depleted uranium did untold harm to our soldiers and civilians in the Middle East and Kosovo.
Gerard Ungerman, a former French infantryman, and his wife Audrey Brohy spent $70,000 of their own money making the film. Despite its agenda, “The Hidden Wars of Desert Storm” works hard to be a balanced documentary, obtaining revealing interviews with a State Department official, Desert Storm commander Norman Schwarzkopf and other experts. Critics at U.S. film festivals were supportive, but Mr. Ungerman shopped the film in vain until “Spotlight” came along.
Mr. Ungerman, who appeared on WorldLink with his film, said he understood why no one else wanted to air something so critical of the U.S. military. “In every country, the media-which is expensive to own and operate-belongs to interest groups, and there’s a lot of groups here that own a chunk of the media that also have to do with the weapons industry,” he said.
The belief that our news media is used by powerful interests to manipulate the public seems to unify WorldLink’s small but deeply devoted viewership. One of the channel’s most popular telecasts was “Manufacturing Consent,” a three-hour film from 1992 in which linguist-activist Noam Chomsky dismissed mainstream news as largely propaganda.
Even if you don’t buy that view, it’s instructive to watch “Hidden Wars of Desert Storm” alongside “Saddam’s Ultimate Solution,” the film that PBS aired this summer as part of its new global-documentary series, “Wide Angle.” Essentially, “Saddam’s Ultimate Solution” writes a prosecutor’s brief for declaring war on Iraq.
As if that weren’t enough, former State Department flack Jamie Rubin invited hawk Richard Perle onto “Wide Angle” for a follow-up. (Mr. Rubin’s first question said it all: “Why should the American people be concerned and what should they think having seen this film?”)
Nearly all of the other “Spotlight” films will come from the BBC which, as Mr. Willis points out, uses its BBC America channel mainly for entertainment, thus leaving the vast stores of its documentary series “Panorama” and “Correspondent” untapped. This month Americans finally got to see the “Panorama” report from 2000 alleging that Nike and the Gap still had sweatshops in the Far East long after pledging to reform their ways.
WorldLink exists because the government told the satellite companies to set aside some transponder space for nonprofit educational channels. WorldLink subsists on foundation dollars and a growing base of 5,000 members, who pledge an average of $70, the total of which is about 10 percent of its budget.
A small thing, but WorldLink’s survival is a minor miracle given the dismal history of American mass media in supporting alternative views. For a country built on penny pamphlets and rabble-rousing newspapers, there’s a remarkable sameness to TV news here that reflects more than simply the higher standards of modern journalism.
“I know too many reporters personally who do resent the straitjacketing and cowardly nature of their bosses and who do all they can to do better journalism,” said Mark Hertsgaard, the media critic and host of “Spotlight” on WorldLink. “It is a constant struggle to make journalism we can be proud of, especially with the Bush bunch in power now and doing all they can to weaken the media’s public service obligations.”
Which is sort of what Mr. Hanania was saying.